42. Grounding ethnography. Social struggles, fields of power, and research practices in geography

Anna Casaglia, University of Trento (contact scholar) 

Her main field of research is critical political geography and she deals with borders and mobility, spatial aspects of power relations and injustice, populism and territorial revival, the climate crisis and security, popular geopolitics. 

Chiara Giubilaro, University of Palermo 

Her main fields of interest are critical urban studies, popular geopolitics and visual culture. She currently works on the relationship between culturally based urban transformation practices and social justice in Southern Europe. 

Grounding Ethnography. Social struggles, fields of power, and research practices in Geography. 

The relation between knowledge and power was at the core of the Italian experience of Democratic Geography, culminated in a conference held in Florence in 1979 centered around methodological questions. Research on the ground, besides being the title of the convention, was intended as an occasion to critically discuss ethnography and the production of geographic knowledge in relation to social struggles: going on the ground was the occasion to access unofficial direct sources, essential to revise our own questions and definitions.
The intrinsic decolonial character of this methodological endeavor reveals itself in two key aspects: from one side the recognition of the non-neutrality of the researcher and of research itself; from the other side, the need to transform research in a social practice aimed at reclaiming science, knowledge, space, alienated labor, the past and the future, as Dematteis put it in his intervention at the Florence conference in 1979. By recognizing the critical function that geographic knowledge can have, the proposal for doing research on the ground opens up to research practices as practices of struggle and involves the co-constitution of knowledge outside the power laden structure of the academy.
Forty-three years after that experience, Geography, especially thanks to feminist and postcolonial approaches, has gone a long way in overcoming over-theorization and focusing on the materiality, the lived experience, and the meaning of space in processes of subjectivity formation. The practice of doing research on the ground has indeed gained popularity and permeates the production of western geographic knowledge.
Our questions for potential panelists regard the actual implications of this methodological approach on our role as geographers in relation to present social struggles such as those on mobility rights, on climate (in)justice, on the right to the city: how does working and being on the ground affect the production of geographical knowledge and its outcomes? How can research on the ground be a practice that unveils and contests power dynamics? Does it open new fields for conflict, new places and strategies of resistance? Does it deconstruct and decolonize knowledge and, with this, genuinely recognize the co-constitutive character of research processes?
Given the social and political relevance of these struggles and given also their centrality in present social sciences’ research, we address these questions to geographers, sociologists and anthropologists interested in the potential of research on the ground as a transformative and radical social practice.

Keywords: grounded research, Geography, social struggles, fieldwork, knowledge production, power relations.

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